Gordon Campbell has written in Werewolf an excellent pre-review about the Defense White Paper due for release in March. Needless to say whatever it returns with will be controversial because it helps to define the direction of the next few decades of expenditure and focus for our military.
It’d be more pleasant for the discussion this time around if some of the more hidebound and ossified of our commentators (of all political hues) had a read of this overview before the discussion begins. One important thing to remember is how the last major review came about.
Over the last decade, the boost in our defence capability carried out under Labour was a byproduct of the Defence Beyond 2000 evaluation carried out by former National Party/Act politician Derek Quigley. In brief, Quigley identified that spending on the armed forces had been spread far too thinly and he advocated an Army focussed approach in future, with the two other services largely playing support roles.
The logic involved was that quality, not breadth, would yield better returns both militarily, and in bang for the buck given the identifiable risks and obligations that New Zealand could rationally be expected to face over the next couple of decades. Once this framework was accepted, the scrapping of the air combat wing made sound tactical and economic sense. It wasn’t needed, it wouldn’t work and it was money down the drain.
Much as National had lambasted it in opposition, a great deal of the logic of Defence Beyond 2000 remains irrefutable, and its framework seems likely to endure. This time around, the Key government has made it clear to its expert review panel that reconsidering the air combat wing decision is not on the cards. Nor is any re-think of this country’s anti-nuclear legislation. Finally and despite all the criticism heaped previously on our levels of defence spending the Key government has made it clear that New Zealand is unlikely to spend more than the 1% of GDP routinely set aside in recent decades for Defence.
It is pretty clear that NACT is likely to want to assume a defence posture that is more orientated to our more traditional allies. But the posture in the defence review in Australia last year was somewhat weird. It seemed to assume a more hawkish viewpoint about the Chinese intentions and future capabilities than even the US military establishment had.
But as Campbell points out
Presumably, New Zealand hasn’t got the means or one hopes, the desire to travel down the strategic path that Rudd is taking Australia. Even so, our alternative course during the 2000s has not remotely meant that we have been pacifists, or peaceniks. During the past decade, our troops have been deployed in Timor, the Solomons, Afghanistan etc, yet without surrendering our ability to pursue a relatively independent foreign policy. By doing so, we avoided getting into the Iraq war. By contrast, if a National government had been in power in 2003, New Zealand would almost certainly have been militarily involved in Iraq, with all of the related security risks and diplomatic fallout that this illegal operation has entailed for Britain, and for Australia.
Come March 31, the public should therefore be looking very critically at the White Paper. They will want to see whether the strategic vision that it contains will put New Zealand at greater risk of being caught up in the military adventurism of our allies. As the US has found, the main threats to our security could well be the ones that our own leaders manage to create.
That is really where the debate should lie when the review gets released. Are we going to continue to follow independent foreign policy where our defence forces have been doing a very effective job. Or do we get sucked into daft conflicts that have little justification, few positive outcomes, and appear to be aimed mainly at securing trade deals.
The infamous example about how and why we wound up putting troops into Vietnam at the behest of President Johnson have some unfortunate parallels with why we are now back in Afghanistan. It bespeaks a resumption of the intellectual laziness in our foreign policy objectives that typifies National government.